Once my four-year-old turned to her older sister and said “if you want daddy to get you something, just do this with your eyes and make tears.” As I watched with disbelief, large droplets rolled shamelessly down her cheeks.
Not all of her tears are faked. There are tears of loss when a favorite toy is broken, tears of pain when she scrapes her knee, tears of shame when she knows she has misbehaved, tears of envy when her sister gets a better present, and tears of terror that soak her face when I find her sitting upright in her bed, eyes still closed, mumbling something about a green witch. I have my favorite way of wiping her tears. I hold her face firmly in my hands, my palms on her cheeks and my fingers on her ears. I put my thumbs gently on her eyelids close to her nose and wipe them very slowly outward, squeezing the tears out of the corners of her eyes as I kiss her forehead. By the time my thumbs reach her temples, the sobbing has eased.
There are many kinds of tears not associated with sadness. Tears are shed in moments of pride, nostalgia, contentment, anxiety, regret, achievement, surrender, and many more states of the human psyche. I recently learned about a new kind of tear when after a series of tests, I told a patient of mine that I had finally found the source of her pain. Her eyes welled up with tears, not because she had just been diagnosed with a spine tumor, nor because she was relieved to learn that the pain would go away once the tumor was removed. I realized that she felt vindicated that her pain was real all along.
I believe in tears, not because I believe in suffering, but because I see them as proofs of the soul. They convey far more than grief. They express the complexity of human emotion. Whether we let them pour out of us with abandon after an overwhelming loss or hold them back at a movie theater, discretely wiping our noses, tears make us feel human, bind us together, and soften the metallic gleam of reality around us. I believe in tears and I believe in wiping them away, with my hands on her face, my thumbs moving slowly apart on her eyelids. And if I am lucky, I get a smile — maybe not right away, but eventually. This I believe.
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